Jubilation, excited energy and most of all a sense of relief filled the building as for the second time in history, Villanova became National Champions.
It was Saturday March 21, 2015, after losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to NC State, when Villanova head coach Jay Wright and then-juniors, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, among others, sat at a long table in front of a room of reporters to answer the same questions they had the year before and the year before that: “You were a top seed and favored to win. What happened?”
The players did their best to hold their heads high in defeat but for Arcidiacono and Ochefu, it was easier said than done. That’s because their legacy, as well as the university’s following the improbable Final Four run in 2009, had been one of a losing tradition, of disappointment. Villanova would never not be a one or two seed in those years and yet, they failed to get out of the second round of the tournament every time. It was not the legacy Arcidiacono expected to leave when he chose to attend both his parents’ alma mater over going to Florida, which had been recruiting him heavily as well.
As a result, entering the 2015-16 season, the senior and final chance for Arcidacono, Ochefu and others, it was safe to say that the Wildcats had the proverbial monkey on their back. No one was expecting them to win a championship, let alone make it to the Sweet 16, something they hadn’t done since ’09 despite being a top-ranked team every year. But the players weren’t counted among the doubters as it never occurred to them or Wright, not to think they could and would win it all.
This led to a storybook season, one that saw Villanova attain the AP #1 ranking for the first time in school history. However, it also led to classic defeat as in the Big East championship against Seton Hall, the Wildcats failed to deliver, shooting just 34.8 percent from beyond the arc and just over 42 percent on all field goals.
Like the year prior, this meant another press conference and more questions.
How big a deal was the loss? What did it mean for Villanova’s chances in the tournament? Would this year be yet another disappointing finish?
Six days later, those thoughts no doubt in the back of the players’ (and fans’) heads, Villanova, as one of the nation’s two seeds, opened up against UNC Asheville and absolutely dominated them. The Wildcats scored 86 points and as two seeds are apt to do against 15 seeds, made it look easy. Ochefu led the way with 17 and 10 rebounds with Arcidiacono adding 14 points, and Kris Jenkins, who’s name will live on in Villanova lore forever, with 12. Mikal Bridges, who came off the bench, also had 12. The team as a whole shot just under 58 percent, including 46.4 from three-point range.
Villanova was making a statement, the first of what would be many in the 2016 tournament. Their victory was the largest margin by a two seed in the first round and second largest overall to Oregon’s 39-point defeat of Holy Cross. However, it was still just the first round and many wanted to dismiss the win given the team’s track record going forward. In fact for Villanova, it was only after this game that the real pressure was on given that another early exit would surely paint the program in a negative light and perhaps even put Wright, for the first time in his coaching career, on the hot seat.
“I’m happy for them, how they’ve handled everything to get to this point… And now everyone’s going to ask the question. We’ve got to go do it. That’s the bottom line. If we don’t do it, it’s failure. But there’s nothing wrong with failure in sports if you give your best effort.”
Villanova took on Iowa in the second round and again, made it look easy. They took a 54-29 lead into the half, the biggest such margin of the entire tournament. There was never any doubt as the closest Iowa would manage was a run that put them within 16 in the final minutes of the game. Villanova won by 19, thanks to the two guys who had never known what it was like to taste that victory in the second game as Ochefu contributed 11 rebounds and Arcidiacono scored 16 points. Overall, it was a full team effort though as all of the starters save for Ochefu, scored at least 12 points led by 19 from Josh Hart. Villanova shot 59.3 percent on the game, 52.6 from three.
“I just think the biggest thing is I’m honestly just done answering the questions about getting past the (first) weekend…I know it was always in the back of our senior minds and our team. But we definitely can go all the way as long as we stick to what we do.”
While Arcidiacono’s words would later come to fruition, a match-up with Miami first awaited them. Again, this seemed to be another game where people were betting against the Wildcats.
So what did Villanova do? They routed Miami and never once trailed in the game which they won by 23 points.
The margins of victory kept growing and Villanova was making its mark as the top shooting team in the tournament. They scored 92 points, just four shy of a season-high, shot a then-tournament high 62.7 percent from the floor and bettered that going for 66.7 percent from beyond the arc. Not to mention, they were a near perfect 18-of-19 from the free throw line. Again, all but one of the starters scored in double digits, with both Jenkins and Arcidiacono pacing the team with 21 apiece.
“If any team is shooting the way we’re shooting right now, they’ll easily be the most dangerous team in the country…But hopefully, we’ll keep shooting like that, so we can keep playing the way we are.”
The Wildcats were living by their offense but the only problem with that is when you live by the three, you very well can die by it too. And given that against the top ranked team in the country, Kansas, Villanova’s shooting went cold, that very well could have been the outcome if not for a defensive effort put forth that may have been the team’s best all season. Villanova shut down Kansas limiting their star of the tournament, Perry Ellis, to a season-low four points on 1-of-5 shooting. They forced 16 turnovers and recorded 11 steals, including two in the guts of the game. It was just enough to make up for the struggling, yet consistent offense, which saw each of the starters net at least seven. And again, not to mention, 18-of-19 from the line, which in this game most certainly made the difference.
This meant a Final Four for Wright’s squad for the first time since 2009.
“Every guy on this team is willing to do whatever it takes to win, man…Everybody on this team sacrifices. But we’re not satisfied. We’re looking forward to our next game in Houston. This definitely is a special feeling, but like I said before, we’re not satisfied.”
In the Final Four, Villanova faced what on paper, appeared to be a tough task. However, in the most dominant, most-well rounded, lopsided performance in Final Four history, the Wildcats absolutely and unequivocally, annihilated Oklahoma. Villanova played top notch defense, holding Oklahoma to 51 points, their best defensive output since holding Georgetown to 50 back in mid-January. In doing so, the Wildcats kept Buddy Hield, who had been averaging over 25 points in the tournament and who was coming off a 37 point performance against Oregon, to just nine points, his second lowest output on the season. He shot 4-of-12 on the night, including 1-of-8 from three point range.
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It was a night to forget for Hield but for Villanova, who scored 95 points, matching their season high, it was a night to remember because on both offense and defense, they were a complete force. Villanova shattered the pre-conceived notions of NRG Stadium not being good to shooters, as they shot 71.4 percent on the night, a mark that was just barely bested by their 73.7 percent from the foul line. Villanova was also 61.1 percent from beyond the arc. All five starters went for at least eight, with Hart leading the way with 23 and Jenkins and Arcidiacono adding 18 and 15 points respectively. Villanova led Oklahoma in every category, save for offensive rebounds, and won by a seemingly impossible 44 points, the biggest win in this year’s tournament and the biggest in Final Four history.
“I’m happy we had one of those games, we made every shot…Kind of similar to our game in Hawaii against Oklahoma, they made everything, we couldn’t make anything. We were dialed in. Played great defensively.”
It had all led up to this, the national title game against North Carolina. Going in, North Carolina was favored to win which wasn’t all that surprising. Like Villanova, they had been playing great basketball, besting opponents by at least 14 points in each of their previous tournament games. They also had an edge over the Wildcats history-wise, as in three previous meetings, Wright’s squad had never been able to defeat that of Roy Williams‘.
The game was an incredible battle, highly contested from the tip to the final seconds, which felt like a script out of a movie. Marcus Paige, who had been lethal all night from the key, made a three to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left on the clock. Wright called a time-out and the play was drawn up, one the team had practiced many times before. Arcidiacono brought the ball up the court and passed to Jenkins, who with less than two seconds left, let it fly. The buzzer sounded and milliseconds later the ball drifted through the net with a perfect swoosh.
Jubilation, excited energy and most of all a sense of relief filled the building as for just the second time in history, Villanova became national champions.
No longer were the Wildcats “one and done.” They were national champions, putting the perfect end to what had been this year’s closest example of a Cinderella story. For Ochefu, who may play in the NBA one day, and Arcidiacono, who finishes his career as the winningest player in Villanova history, this one was for them, for their legacy. Because now instead of going down as players who could never get past the second round, they’ll forever be remembered as national champions.
As one could have imagined, just over a year after that NC State loss, the press conference against another North Carolina school, went just a little bit differently this time around. And next year, instead of being asked “what happened?” it will be, “can you repeat as national champions?”
The narrative has officially been changed for the better.